Twelve men gather in a hotel room to discuss a series of recent, simultaneously occurring coincidences and crimes in their small New Zealand town in the year 1866. Walter Moody, fresh off the boat in search of his fortune in gold, accidentally interrupts this meeting. An awkward silence gives way quickly enough, and the deeply satisfying novel, The Luminaries, begins to unwind its yarn. This is not a novel to be taken lightly — given also that it’s a massive tome that rounds off at 832 pages — because it deserves all of the reader’s attention. The warning is laid out up front in the jacket description: “nothing is as it seems”. That warning should be heeded. Eleanor Catton offers up a richly nuanced and daringly innovative novel, which deserves to be on every story lover’s reading list.
Of all things about this novel, the plot is the hardest to define simply. There has been a murder, a prostitute has been accused of attempted suicide, and the richest man in the region is missing. This is the set of circumstances of particular interest to a banker, a chemist, a businessman, a politician, a Maori friend of the murdered man, and the rest of the 12 gathered in the room. The story could have been told very directly, and it would still hold tremendous value as a narrative. However, it is to Catton’s credit and acute authorial vision that she chooses to layer the narrative by making the 12 men in that secret meeting tell the story to Walter Moody, and then go back and forth from that room to the story, as and when it suits the narrative’s pace.
The prostitute, after her recovery, gives up her profession temporarily, a prominent politician’s trunk gets stolen, gold is found in strange places in strange ways, and all the while Walter Moody sits listening to the story while the reader of The Luminaries relives it. Loyalties, back-stories, motivations and affiliations are revealed and their degrees developed with every turn of the page, and the reader’s patience rewarded with gratifying details about this novel’s world and its people.
Catton’s gift of character creation and development is evident within the first 20 pages. She takes a page from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which the Russian author, instead of hiding the peculiarities of his characters as a means of enticing the reader to keep reading, reveals their motivations and traits up front. Catton, making full use of the ample space in her novel, reveals her characters in detail. All of them are intriguing in different ways, and none of them would qualify for a hero or a villain. They are real live people, and they do things that ordinary people would.
Consider, for example, a simple digressive thought, as she lays it out about Thomas Balfour, one of the 12 men: “‘I’ve been busy,’ said Balfour, eyeing the candle a second time — for ever since he was a boy he had not been able to sit before a candle without wanting to touch it, to sweep his index finger through the flame until it blackened, to mould the soft edges where the wax was warm, to dip his fingertip into the pool of molten heat and then withdraw it, swiftly, so that the tallow formed a yellow cap over the pad of his finger which blanched and constricted as it cooled.”
Aiding her portrayal of lifelike characters is Catton’s tremendous dexterity with the English language. Page after page, passage after passage can be underlined and annotated for its aesthetic value alone. That she marries that splendour of construction with the sentences actually meaning something beautiful within the story as well comes as a windfall. Even conflict between the principal characters is rendered a thing of beauty. She describes a character’s emotional disposition in a moment of crisis thus: “His anger, though palpable, seemed to render him somehow powerless. He was occupied by his emotion; he was its servant, not its liege.”
Moments of transition between the past and the present with the 12 gathered storytellers are exceptionally well-written, and each transition is made differently. Here’s one example: “But onward also rolls the outer sphere — the boundless present, which contains the bounded past. This story is being narrated, with much allusion and repeated emphasis, to Walter Moody — and Benjamin Löwenthal, who is also present in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel, is hearing parts of the tale for the very first time.” The constituent parts of the novel are all superb, and they resonate well together, creating a harmony witnessed only in the best kind of writing. What makes The Luminaries transcend the limits most good novels attempt is its level of insight. E.M. Forster, in his seminal work, Aspects of the Novel, labelled this criterion the “prophecy”: something universally human, uttered by only the best of novels, and revealed as if it were newly discovered, or articulated for the first time. Catton’s book enters this mode of revelation not once, or twice, but several times, and with each of her principal 13 characters. If the book were not so lengthy, such divination and analysis of the human condition would perhaps have been too much for such a young writer, or a short novel, to contain. But Catton trusts and indulges her writing abilities, and has invested herself in writing one of the best books of recent times.
Validation has begun for The Luminaries and its author. The book has already won the Man Booker Prize for 2013 (making Catton, at 28, the youngest-ever winner), and is sure to pick up more awards. This is only Catton’s second book, and it took her only two years to write it. The author is just beginning, and her talent is soaring already. The question comes begging: how much better than this magnificent novel can she write? Readers around the world should pick The Luminaries up immediately, for it is sure to remain part of the canon of contemporary — and perhaps all-time — greats.
The reviewer teaches rhetoric at LUMS
By Eleanor Catton
Granta Books, UK